In a shocking result, 57% of the Swiss have voted to ban mosques with minarets in their country. Both the majority of cantons and the majority of people have voted to ban the mosques, reflecting the increasingly xenophobic mood of Swiss politics.
The vote follows the win of the anti-immigrant Swiss People’s Party (SVP) two years ago. Now the largest party in Switzerland’s parliament, the SVP strongly backed the constitutional ban, saying that minarets (the tall slender towers on traditional mosques) are a sign of militant Islam and a threat to Switzerland. However the rest of the political parties in government opposed the ban and warned that it was not only unnecessary, but also sending a hostile message to the country’s minority populations.
Of course in Switzerland it doesn’t matter that the majority of the government strongly opposed a ban, it is easy for citizens to put virtually anything to a national referendum for people to vote on. And with a saturation of posters like the one above, it’s relatively easy to whip up hysteria about what is essentially a non-issue.As demonstrated time and time again, referendums can never be counted on to protect the rigthts of minorities.
Switzerland has 4 minarets in the entire country, an incredibly low number for a Western European country. This is the result of two factors – the Muslim population is fairly small at 400,000, and planning applications for minarets are almost always refused by local authorities.
The campaigners for the ban have insisted that minarets are a symbol of militant Islam. SVP member of parliament Ulrich Schluer said "A minaret is a political symbol. It is a symbol for introducing, step-by-step, Sharia rights also in Switzerland, parallel to the Swiss law which is a result of Swiss democracy. And this is the problem. It is nothing against Muslims."
The reality of course is that the vast majority of Switzerland’s Muslims are either fellow Europeans from the Balkans or immigrants from Turkey. They’re not exactly coming from hotbeds of Islamic extremism. In fact Switzerland probably has one of the lowest penetrations of Islamic extremism in Western Europe, considering that immigration from geographic areas where Islamic extremism is a problem – North Africa, the Middle East, Pakistan and Indonesia – is very restricted. So it’s hard to see how such a drastic measure as changing the constitution to ban a piece of architecture is necessary.
Essentially it’s an imaginary solution to an imaginary problem. There is no Islamic extremism problem in Switzerland, and even if there were, how on earth would getting rid of minarets solve it?
The media has been making a lot of comparisons to the French head scarf ban in public schools, but I don't really think this is an apt comparison. The argument was made that the veil disrupted learning and encouraged hostility by providing visable markers of difference between students. There were also safety and practicality questions raised about students being allowed to cover their face in school. This Swiss minaret ban is entirely different, as there is no legitimate practical issue that this resolves - it's entirely symbolic. Muslim calls to prayer are already not allowed in the country because of blanket noise ordinances, so the presence of a minaret really has no practical effect on the population. A girl wearing a veil in a classroom arrguably has a very real effect on the learning environment for her, her teacher, and other pupils.
In any event, this is a dismaying result for a country that seems to be sliding into increasing xenophobia and nastiness. There is a debate to be had about Islam's place in Europe and in European law, but this largely symbolic vote has no practical effect other than alienating Swiss muslims. Perhaps even more importantly, it sends a troublingly hostile message to the world at large.
***Added 30/11/09: Analysis following the vote has found that the ban is most likely illegal under European and international law. I’ve heard a few comments in the UK about how the vote will be ok because Switzerland is not part of the EU. Actually Switzerland is a member of the Council of Europe and is party to the European Convention on Human Rights and subject to the European Court of Human Rights. Grahnlaw has a good entry summing up the various legal analysis, and the overall conclusion is that the ban is contrary to Switzerland’s obligations under European human rights law and will require corrective measures.